Fifty years ago, hundreds of young white and black Americans united to desegregate buses across the South. These Freedom Riders, as they came to be known, drew vivid attention to the inhumanity of segregation, and their collective action marked a turning point in galvanizing white support for the civil-rights movement. Since the summer of 1961, many Americans have continued to fight widespread inequality and racism. Yet despite remarkable progress--including the election of an African American president--many forms of racial injustice remain deeply entrenched in American society.
Nearly 40 percent of all black and Hispanic students will fail to graduate high school this year, double the rate for white students. Economic hardship is also drawn across racial lines: More than 30 percent of blacks and Hispanics live in poverty compared to 13 percent of whites. The criminal-justice system reflects these inequities in a disturbing pattern. Of the 2 million people incarcerated in the United States, more than half are black and Hispanic. The combination of poverty and criminal-justice policies that disproportionately single out people of color has led to social and moral crises in cities like Washington, D.C., where three out of four young black men--and more still in the poorest neighborhoods-can expect to serve time in prison.
While there is no 21st-century counterpart to the Freedom Riders, there is a vibrant movement of white activists dedicated to working alongside people of color to combat racial injustice, particularly in local communities and institutions. I recently interviewed 50 white racial activists for a study designed to understand how white Americans become aware of racism and organize against it. What I learned is that few are moved to action by statistics, however distressing they may be. Rather, directly witnessing racism struck their conscience. Such powerful moments demonstrated to white participants, many of them young, that cherished values of fairness and justice could be violated with ease. Although studies show widespread racial discrimination, these kinds of direct encounters with racism are still rare for many white Americans who live largely segregated lives; only 15 percent of Americans report having even one confidant of another race. Overcoming passivity about systemic racism may require a life-changing experience, but once aware, white activists can form strong multiracial relationships that lead to social change.
Many white Americans start this kind of activism in college. For white students who grow up in predominately white communities, college is often the first place where they meet people of color in large numbers and begin to build meaningful relationships with them. That experience, like volunteering in a low-income community, is more likely today than it was 40 years ago. In 1971, only 9 percent of entering college freshmen were nonwhite; in 2006, that figure was up to 24 percent.
The activists emerging out of these circumstances appear less ideologically driven than in the past and more focused, for example, on how to reform schools to better serve low-income and minority children. This particular issue has interested so many younger whites that securing a Teach for America position, which is typically located in schools serving low-income communities of color, has become competitive, like landing a Wall Street job. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of white college graduates are pursuing more traditional paths to teaching in urban schools. In general, the number of college students who volunteer for community service and action projects has risen sharply in the past decade. By 2005, 3.3 million college students volunteered regularly--nearly 600,000 more than three years earlier. (A 2006 report found that the volunteer rate among white and nonwhite college students was 32 percent and 24 percent, respectively.)
Josh Kern, 37, discovered firsthand how the contrast between privilege and poverty in the education system can be a catalyst for activism. …